American Propaganda on the South China Sea and Cyber Space

At some point, such propaganda may become a self-fulfilling threat to peace.

American Propaganda on the South China Sea and Cyber Space

Adm. Scott Swift, left, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, looks on during a P-8 maritime surveillance mission over the disputed South China Sea in July 2015.

Credit: US Navy

If I had to choose between the United States and China at a moral level on any issue of domestic policy, I would choose the United States on almost all occasions. China’s dark arts of propaganda and information manipulation are among the best in the world, though thankfully they are not always successful. China’s record of human rights abuse is staggering. Against that background, how can we reasonably evaluate propaganda tactics of the U.S.-based actors opposed to China on any aspect of policy? Why would we? After all, for its part, the United States government is normally quite scrupulous about transparency and truth-telling in the public domain. It has my respect for being a world leader in this domain. But it is not immune to the allure of propaganda.

There is at least one circumstance where I would feel morally obliged to talk about American propaganda, be it from official sources or elsewhere in the country. That is where anti-China propaganda is a possible threat to peace or where it is clearly intended to support unnecessary (unjustified) militarization or aggravation of geopolitical tension. On this score, the United States State Department and the White House under Obama have been reasonably balanced, with only occasional exceptions.

It was with considerable dismay, but zero surprise, when I read a day or so ago in a New York Times article a reference to “China’s aggressive territorial claims” without any qualification. So that’s it. No nuance, no history. China is an aggressor. This may constitute a clear shift by the New York Times in reporting on China. It does not help that other news outlets, including the United States’ own Voice of America and the Financial Times, report falsely that China claims almost the entire South China Sea. By contrast, to its credit, the U.S. State Department reported in December last year that China has never clarified the legal intent of the nine-dashed line that has enclosed the South China Sea since China first drew it around 1947: “The United States has not protested the dashed line … because it does not believe that such a claim has been made by China. Rather, the United States has requested that the Government of China clarify its claims”.

The exaggerated outrage of recent U.S. Defense Department officials about China’s changing the geopolitical “status quo” in the South China Sea, by reclaiming land and building an airfield on a coral reef, have been dissected and dismissed rather well by a number of analysts. Others, like Hugh White and Doug Bandow, have spoken out against the overly militarized response to China’s maritime activities by the United States. But it may be time to ask some further questions about the DoD propaganda. Is this one of those rare occasions when one part of the U.S. government uses public propaganda to try to sway public opinion in its fight with other parts of the United States government or with Congress? A recent report in Politico suggests there is a rather deep divide on how to respond to China in respect of the South China Sea.

The New York Times article I mentioned above is in part about how the United States should respond to China’s perceived aggression in cyber space, especially the latest theft of data from the Office of Personnel Management. So it matters a lot to that debate whether or not the United States has already decided that China is an “aggressor” and a threat to rules-based international order because of its actions in the South China Sea. The two lines of threat analysis feed off each other.

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Yet in the case of cyber space, there is a serious lack of transparency and balance in American commentary, official or mass media. We know much of the detail of who is doing what and how about the South China Sea. We, in the public domain, know almost nothing of who is doing what in cyber space, except one-sided reporting about China’s espionage successes and legitimate U.S. concerns about possible threats from Chinese activity to critical infrastructure. The Snowdon revelations were not very informative on U.S. operations against China. We have almost no detail in public on how the United States is acting towards China in cyber space. This is not to be viewed negatively, since such secrets do need to be protected, but we do need to acknowledge that the reporting is one-sided. We know what China is doing but information on what the United States is doing remains almost entirely classified. The information asymmetry is important in how the public evaluates China’s actions in cyber space.

In the past year, incitement has been become all too visible in the rhetoric of United States strategic policy globally. This can be justified in the case of the fight against Islamic State and against Russian aggression in the Ukraine. After all, incitement is another word for mobilization of allies or public support. Incitement by the U.S. government is not justified in the case of China’s maritime policy, but measured diplomacy is essential as long as there is ambiguity about China’s legal positions. Incitement may also not be justified in respect of China’s actions in cyber space, but the nuances of that argument are much harder to make in the absence of detailed reporting on one of the key actors while actions of the other are regularly covered.

Whatever the realities, resort to incitement and tools of propaganda in matters of geo-strategy and military affairs involving China may need to be more finely judged than has been the case in the recent past in United States. At some point, such propaganda may become a self-fulfilling threat to peace.